Category: writing process


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An excellent question. Thank you. In fact a story develops on multiple planes. Research helps shape it, current events help shape it, what is going on in my own life helps shape it. Every day, all day long, choices are being made during the writing and editing process. Dead ends are pursued and rejected. Seemingly dead ends open up and reveal a passage to the next part of the story. Eventually the story has its own unique shape and structure because of the choices I’ve made during those months of work. After a year of trying to bring my thoughts, ideas, characters, plot, setting, etc. into focus, the book arrives on my editor’s desk and shortly thereafter returns to me with questions, concerns, suggestions. And the process begins again. It’s fascinating to think of how many different books could have emerged during this process, books that were not written, sacrificed to this one story line that managed to dominate all the myriad options available to me as I wrote.

(This question came from East Prairie Public School in Skokie, Illinois.)

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I loved the experience of researching and writing STOWAWAY. Using the journals kept by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, as well as the shipboard artist, Sydney Parkinson, I felt more immersed in primary source material than I have felt writing any other book. It’s important to me to be as accurate as possible when writing historical novels. Having the words of the men aboard Endeavour at my fingertips through the entire writing process gave me confidence that I was as close to an authentic recounting of the journey as it was possible to get.

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Esther’s way of speaking was inspired by a little book I read near the beginning of my research for WITNESS. In THE STORY OF OPAL, Opal Whiteley, speaks in an unusual way for reasons unexplained to her readers. The authenticity of Opal’s diary has been challenged but I loved the way it established her character, whether it was true or not. Because I wanted to impart to readers a sense of my character, Esther, being the child of immigrants, and because I wanted to create her character as one of innocence and naivete, Opal’s mode of speech seemed the perfect starting point.

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1872 Lighthouse on the Hudson River (photo taken August 2017)

Although A LIGHT IN THE STORM was inspired by the very real lighthouse keeper, Ida Lewis, the book is a work of fiction. I spent over a year researching the Civil War, the particular complexities of living along the Mason-Dixon Line, and the duties and responsibilities of lighthouse keepers during the 1800s. Many of the details in my book are drawn from newspapers of the period…perhaps that’s what gives A LIGHT IN THE STORM its air of reality.

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When I write in free verse I usually avoid formal constraints. Though I do love occasional internal rhyme, I try not to overdo it as too much makes the work seem self-conscious and contrived. Instead, I arrange the  verse to suggest the rhythm and cadence of the character’s native language or accent. I think of my novels in verse more as theater than as one long poem.

A writer must carefully balance foreshadowing. Too much and it feels manipulative. Too little and the reader feels disoriented. Either way the reader is pulled out of the book and a writer never wants that to happen.
The foreshadowing is there…perhaps when reading the book again someday you will find what on first reading eluded you. 
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While researching, I come across multiple articles on certain events. I also peruse numerous advertisements for everything from baby bonnets to basketball games. I make an effort to fold these bits and pieces from the period into my narrative in a way that reflects how often I came upon them in my research. So yes, the events in the book, from the accidental fire to the curiosity about the Dionne quintuplets received multiple mentions and attention in the media of the early 1930s.

road-trip-with-kate-to-arizona-2016lc-287There are no guarantees in life. If a formula existed for becoming a best-selling author  the market would be flooded with best-sellers to the point that “best-seller” would cease to have the meaning we presently give it.  I’m certain there are successful writers who followed a path to fame and fortune, who sought publicity first, placing the goal of being a “best-seller” above the deeper goal of communicating profoundly with other members of the human race, and I’ll bet some of them are quite satisfied with their choices, but it would not be my advice to you to follow that path. Perhaps a better goal would be to write books  on subjects and themes you care deeply about. Dig down into your material, dig  down into your understanding of yourself and of the world. Understand that there are mountains, beyond mountains, beyond mountains, that the superficial has its place but may not be as enduring, or as gratifying as the longer view. Write what’s in your heart, write what’s on your mind, and if it becomes a best-seller, you have that, too, to celebrate at the end of the process.

Aleutian Sparrow

Aleutian Sparrow

With joy, in 2000 I accepted an invitation to travel to Southeast Alaska and speak to enthusiastic students, librarians, and educators. The students in particular hoped I might write a book about Alaska but I shook my head no. I could never write with the authenticity of an Alaskan resident. However, while in Ketchikan, I visited Parnassus Books where I purchased  more volumes about Alaska than I could carry. Most of the books were shipped back to my home in Vermont. But I kept a couple out to read on the plane. That is when I first learned of the Aleuts and their story. To my knowledge, no one had told their story to young readers and I feared no one ever would. This was such a risky project. How could I ever do the tale justice?  I was very fortunate to have the assistance of several people with first hand experience who gave me honest criticism and helped me correct my misunderstandings and mistakes.

I fear the emotional, mental, and physical trauma of being relocated, of living in a refugee camp, has not changed significantly since 1942.

Stowaway

Stowaway

Our local library, Brooks Memorial, regularly brings lecturers in to speak on a wide range of topics. James Cook scholar David Bisno spoke in the meeting room one evening in late 1998 or so. On a table at the front of the room piles of primary source material beckoned. For me, primary sources are like sweets, I can’t get enough of them. When I started leafing through Beaglehole’s definitive edition of Captain Cook’s journal I felt chills of delight. It took me less than 24 hours to request a copy of this two book collection through Inter Library Loan. Once the books arrived I poured over them…and there I discovered Nicholas Young. At lunch a few days later, I shared with my husband much of what I’d learned so far about the Endeavour’s journey. As I related stories about young Nick, it suddenly occurred to me that I had discovered a perfect narrator. Writing this book was consuming in a way no other had been. I rarely left my desk…just as the men rarely got off  their ship. I slept with my head on my desk, I ate at my desk. I stopped calling (and taking calls) from family and friends. What a journey. But I’d take it again in a heartbeat. It was an extraordinary, singular experience.